Go for a walk in Wynwood and you'll see the colorful, detailed work of street artists and graffitists whose creations have made the neighborhood a world-renowned destination. Along some storefronts, masquerading as art, you'll also see advertisements for liquor companies, beers, designer clothing, Netflix specials and television shows, and chocolate milk.
Now, the Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID) is fighting what its board characterizes as the commercialization of Miami's famed arts district.
"Since the beginning of 2021, we've counted more than 20 advertisement murals," Manny Gonzalez, executive director of the Wynwood BID, tells New Times.
Gonzalez says the BID is trying to keep Wynwood from turning into an overwhelmingly commercial place like Times Square in New York. The BID first noticed advertisements popping up around Wynwood a few years ago around Art Basel time.
"They would appear overnight and by January 4, they'd disappear," Gonzalez says. "It was hard for us to pinpoint where they were coming from and who was putting them up because it happened so fast."
Gonzalez believes advertisers are capitalizing on the increase in visitors to promote products in the bustling neighborhood. But in the past year and a half — Art Basel or not — the advertisement murals have stuck around.
The BID, City of Miami code enforcement, and police have been cracking down on businesses that allow such advertisements on their walls. In March, Miami code enforcement issued a notice of violation and a summons to appear over an unpermitted Jack Daniel's mural on a property at NW 25th Street and Second Avenue. In April, the city busted a Calvin Klein mural on NW 25th Street.
The Miami 21 zoning code for Wynwood prohibits signs or "advertising devices of any kind" that are visible from a public right-of-way. The city's planning and zoning code on murals regulates where such pieces of art can be displayed. Artists are required to apply for mural permits, which are issued by the city manager once the artist meets certain criteria, including payment of fees.
Once an artist has acquired a mural permit, they can obtain all the building permits the city requires for a mural to be put up. Applicants are required to comply with all the terms set in the zoning code or risk having their permit revoked and being disqualified from applying for future mural permits.
Although the zoning code allows for murals to have a "limited commercial sponsorship message," the Wynwood BID says most of the advertisement murals going up in Wynwood are unpermitted.
The business that allowed the Jack Daniel's mural, for example, was slapped with a citation for violating the Miami 21 code by "illegally erecting, placing, or mounting an outdoor advertising sign." The proposed correction on the citation was for the business owner to take down the advertisement or acquire a permit. Each code violation carries a fine of $1,000 per day until the issue is resolved.
The zoning code says fees can be charged to the artist who creates the mural, the person or company who commissions it, the owner of the property where the mural is placed, the advertising sponsor of the mural, or the person or company who owns or licenses the product being advertised.
"This past year and a half, there seems to be a middle person contacting major companies and telling them it's OK to put advertisement murals in Wynwood," Gonzalez speculates.
Gonzalez says the BID believes this middle person is being paid tens of thousands of dollars to secure advertising space and to hire the artists to create the murals. That complicates enforcement, according to Miami police Cmdr. Dan Kerr, because the fine is no match for the lucrative potential of bringing advertisers to the area. Kerr, a self-proclaimed fan of all things Wynwood, says his concern is that artists might not know about the zoning code or that they can be cited for painting the murals.
In March, for example, Kerr says he talked to an artist creating a commercial mural who was oblivious to the zoning regulations.
"The artist was told to paint by whoever they were working for," Kerr says. "Under the guise of hooking the artist up with a gig and money, the people commissioning the artists are jeopardizing them civilly. That's one thing that bothers me."
Kerr and Gonzalez say local artists and taggers will sometimes spray-paint over the advertising murals to make a point about commercialism not being welcome on the neighborhood's walls.
"For 15 years, the neighborhood has been a haven for artists to portray art to the public," Gonzalez says. "If you are a true artist of graffiti in Miami or in South Florida, it's basically against the moral code of the artist to do advertisements. Your reputation is everything."
But some artists say that art isn't free and painting advertisements is a good way to make money to pay the bills so they can have leeway to work on passion projects.
One artist, who asked New Times not to identify them by name, says advertisements in Wynwood have been a problem for a long time, but they just recently became a problem for the BID.
"The question for me is, is it really a problem? Or is this the only way artists can get paid in Wynwood?" the artist says. "I make murals in Wynwood. I always try pushing the art and keeping it relevant. I think the problem is more than with advertisements. The advertisements are needed because no one pays the artists in Wynwood. The property owners don't really like to pay for art."
The artist says he believes advertisements in Wynwood are a positive phenomenon because artists have bills to pay and families to support just like everyone else. But he agrees there should be some regulations and controls. A painted Jack Daniel's bottle "does nothing for the culture," he says. But there are ways to promote products, such as by creating a piece of work with a small tag underneath or on the side that says the art is sponsored by a particular company.
Museum of Graffiti co-founders Alan Ket and Allison Freidin say they too are supportive of commercial art that allows artists to get paid.
Freidin says there aren't a lot of opportunities for graffiti artists to make money, so any deal that allows them to showcase their talents and take home a paycheck is ideal.
"Companies want to come in and support artists and say, 'We want to give money to street artists and have them paint and engage in sponsorship relationships,'" Freidin says. "It's similar to what you see with athletes and other types of celebrities. It's a beautiful thing that artists are now having an opportunity for sponsorships, as long as it's containing artwork that's original art."
But, Ket notes, the neighborhood has to draw the line somewhere.
"Obviously, there are murals that go up that are basically a sign for a brand. Like a big Heineken bottle or something. And we're not in support of that," Ket says. "Those, I think, are over the top and maybe too much of a regular billboard that you might see on a highway. I don't think those make the neighborhood look so great. I don't appreciate those when I see them."
Gonzalez, the Wynwood BID director, worries that commercial advertisements posing as art will cheapen what the area has become known for.
"We're just trying to honor the neighborhood and the spirit of Wynwood," Gonzalez says. "We didn't get successful with advertisements. We got successful with art, and we're trying to keep it that way."
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